The Tale of Aramaic.

There’s probably nothing in John McWhorter’s Atlantic piece “Where Do Languages Go to Die?” that will surprise any LH reader familiar at all with Aramaic, but McWhorter is always an enjoyable writer, and he opens with the piquant image of “a Middle Eastern man from 2,500 years ago” visiting our world and being amazed by the dominance of Arabic — in his time “an also-ran tongue spoken by obscure nomads” — where he would have expected to find Aramaic. A sample paragraph:

Aramaic, then, is in a splintered and tenuous state. Yet it was the English of its time—a language that united a large number of distinct peoples across a vast region, a key to accessing life beyond one’s village, and a mark of sophistication to many. The Aramaeans—according to Biblical lore named for Noah’s grandson Aram—started as a little-known nomadic group. But they were seekers, and by the 11th century B.C.E. they ruled large swaths of territory in Mesopotamia, encompassing parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, including, for a spell, the city of Babylon itself. On the basis of this expansion alone, however, theirs would likely have become just one of various languages of the area that briefly enjoyed fame and then vanished in the endless game of musical chairs that was ancient Middle Eastern politics. The Aramaeans themselves were in Babylon only temporarily: In 911 B.C.E., the Assyrians, who spoke a language called Akkadian, ousted them. But the Assyrians unwittingly helped the Aramaeans’ language extinguish their own.

If you find that enjoyable, might as well read the whole thing. But I found this a bizarre assertion: “Russian, spoken by countless millions, is so horrifically complex that part of me always wonders whether it is an elaborate hoax.” Dude, try a language from the Caucasus sometime. (Thanks again, Trevor!)


  1. An interesting article, marred by its glib (and unnecessary) dismissal of the possibility that it could ever happen to English. It would have been better to let people draw their own conclusions.

  2. Nakho-Dagestanian languages are definitely easier than Russian. Georgian seems quite difficult, though.

  3. dismissal of the possibility that it could ever happen to English

    What McWhorter actually wrote was “I suspect that English will hold on harder and longer than any language in history.”

  4. David Marjanović says

    The Aramaeans—according to Biblical lore named for Noah’s grandson Aram—

    Yeah, yeah, in a passage that has all known peoples descend from eponymous ancestors. In reality, Aram was a name for, roughly, Syria.

  5. David Marjanović says

    From the article:

    Together, these things can drill a language into international consciousness in a historically unprecedented way, creating a sense of what is normal, cosmopolitan, cool even—

    The word cool is now found in German, French and even Mandarin ().

  6. Yes, as Ken says, McWhorter only uses the word “suspect.” He’s just stating his opinion here; actually, I’m inclined to agree with him. I didn’t find it glib; in my experience, that flaw pops up just as often or more so when people assert that English is definitely going down in the near future, and even have enough confidence to think they can predict what its successor will be (Chinese has been a trendy candidate in recent years).

  7. I’m inclined to agree with him too, though balkily and resentfully.

  8. Nakho-Dagestanian? 70 consonants and 64 cases? Doesn’t sound simple to me.

  9. Yeah, I’m curious to know if minus273 was joking, and if not what the reasoning is.

  10. Never mind Caucasian languages, Russian is certainly less complex than classical Latin. In fact, Russian is easier than medieval Latin, a language that managed to remain in use as a vital written and spoken lingua franca for over 1000 years.

  11. Yes, I never found Russian particularly hard; in fact, I found it easier than German.

  12. Well, by that I mean that the morphology is usually quite regular, simple and sweet, the only cross-linguistic criterium of difficulty that holds water. Indo-european nouns aren’t exactly simple to decline.

  13. Huh. Which language(s) in particular do you have in mind?

  14. Well, turns out I’m not that right by my own standards: Ingush nouns and verbs, for example, show quite non-trivial irregular morphology.

  15. Interesting. Not that I’ve studied any Caucasian languages except Georgian, but I’ve looked at a couple of others, and they all seemed fairly forbidding.

  16. English, of course, won’t be displaced any time soon, but people should learn not to make prediction 300 years ahead. Unless it is return of a comet.

  17. A good example for an easy Nakho-Daghestanian language: Tabasaran, (re-re-)described in a recent PhD thesis.

    For a noun, you need to memorize at most four forms: absolutive, oblique stem (usually abs + -i), ergative (usually abs + -i) and plural (usually abs + -ar, plural declension is completely regular).

    All the cases except absolutive are transparently built on the oblique stem. For xudul “petit-fils/petite-fille”, the oblique stem is xuduli, and the case forms are the following:

    genitive: xudulin
    dative: xuduliz
    and 42 “spatial cases”.

    Now, unlike more difficult languages such as Hungarian, where the analogy inessive:illative = adessive:allative doesn’t hold (-ban:-ba-nál:-hoz), the spatial cases of Tabasaran are completely transparent. There are seven possible directions ( “in”, -h ~ -xh “at, near”, -k “on (an oblique/vertical surface)”, -qh “behind”, -kk “under”, “inside, between”, -in “on”) and four possible manners (Ø “at”, -an “from”, -na “towards”, -di “with (a means of transport)”).

    To form a spatial case, you simply tack the manner suffix on the direction suffix: inessive would be , subelative -kkan and superlative -ina.

  18. (Sorry, should be : I misread the notation in the PhD thesis.)

    Weak verbs have one stem and strong verbs three, just as in English or German. Like in the more IE-ish of IE languages (meta something meta-something-ō), verbs have preverbs of direction which duplicate the spatial case required by the verb. Verbs agree with the gender of the S or the P, also in a transparent manner (invariable consonant infixed after the last stem vowel).

    So yes, at least Tabasaran is an easier language than Russian.

  19. David Marjanović says

    …But 7 x 4 is only 28. Where do the other 14 spatial cases come from?

  20. David Marjanović says

    Yes, I never found Russian particularly hard; in fact, I found it easier than German.

    So would I if I hadn’t already grown up speaking German.

    verbs have preverbs of direction which duplicate the spatial case required by the verb

    Speaking of German, that sounds a lot like it.

  21. Where do the other 14 spatial cases come from?

    I haven’t done the calculation. In fact there is still another suffix -di, called directive, which can be added to latives and elatives, so -ʁ-an means “from the inside of”; -ʁ-an-di “from the direction of the inside of”.

    So would I if I hadn’t already grown up speaking German.

    German is easy to read — you just ignore all the umlauts and -en’s — but impossible to correctly produce.

  22. German is easy to read — you just ignore all the umlauts and -en’s — but impossible to correctly produce.


  23. morphological difficulty

    Decades ago when I was a student of English at the Sorbonne, some of my classmates found English verb morphology horrendous! I did not think so myself: once you memorized a couple of pages of “irregular” forms (sing, sang, sung; give, gave, given, etc) there was nothing else to learn by heart. I guess the problem for others was the unpredictability, as in hit, hit, hit.

  24. Among 96% of world population who are not native English speakers, English would be displaced by Google Translate quite soon.

  25. the only cross-linguistic criterium of difficulty that holds water

    Packing all those consonant phonemes into a normal-sized space is no easy matter either.

  26. “Among 96% of world population who are not native English speakers, English would be displaced by Google Translate quite soon.”

    Working with a large international organisation recently, I was told: “The official working language of this headquarters is Bad English”. And, indeed, everyone there was a fluent speaker of Bad English.

  27. I think I would have a lot of trouble learning to speak Bad English.

  28. “I would have a lot of trouble learning to speak Bad English”.

    No way. English grammar and syntax are ridiculously simple and easy. Anyone can learn some basic English in no time and use it to their own benefit. And to be honest, who cares if it’s good or bad English as long as you speak it well enough to survive? It’s a tool, a means to an end, it’s not like it’s your language. … Or at least that’s what things look like for most on the other side of the mirror (in case you haven’t realized it yet).

  29. English grammar and syntax are ridiculously simple and easy.

    Well, try to explain to a Frenchman, let alone a Chinese, the difference between the and a.

  30. Sorry, the difference between the and a and nothing.

  31. Sorry, the difference between the and a and nothing

    “Use plural + nothing, young padavan” ?

  32. Ariadne: JC: “I think I would have a lot of trouble learning to speak Bad English”.

    Written by someone whose native language is Standard English. It would be hard for him to switch to “Bad English”.

  33. Marie-Lucie: Not necessarily. We all do it to an extent when talking to non native speakers of our language. Besides, the good thing is we can joke about the situation. Well, so can they.

  34. In one western corporation I worked, it was managers from Scotland or Australia who had most trouble to make themselves understood by the rest of the multinational staff.

    Employees from India or Russia had no such difficulty – everybody understood them quite well despite their accents…

  35. managers from Scotland or Australia

    I think this had to do with some of their vowels being quite different from those of more or less standard British and American accents. Also, as native speakers they probably spoke faster than the non-native speakers.

  36. I am by no means an expert on Aramaic, but I think that Dr. McWhorter was confused about a few things, especially in this passage:

    > Anyone who has found Arabic tough going, or thinks back on the Hebrew they likely didn’t really learn in Hebrew school, would recognize the same obstacles in Aramaic. Plus more, such as that nouns came in different forms depending on whether they were being used in an ordinary way[,] linked to other nouns, or being emphasized.

    He is alluding to the three-way distinction between status absolutus (the indefinite form; his “being used in an ordinary way”), status absolutus (the construct form; his “linked to other nouns”), and status emphaticus (the definite form; his “being emphasized”). But he presents this as a complexity of Aramaic that is not shared with Hebrew and Arabic, when in fact it’s a commonality of all three languages. It’s also pretty lame to explain status emphaticus as “being emphasized”, which makes it sound exotic and difficult, when in fact it originally just meant “the” (and its later evolution was presumably due to simplification by non-native speakers, rather than something to make Aramaic more difficult). (This would be fine — definiteless is actually difficult for people to learn if they didn’t grow up with it — except that he then goes on to contrast Aramaic with English, of which he says that “it’s relatively easy to learn its basics”.)

  37. They can’t both be status absolutus, surely.

  38. @John Cowan: Yeah, sorry, editing error. The second one should be status constructus.

  39. I think Persian is the only relatively familiar language that has specific/non-specific marking rather than definite-indefinite (or neither). The difference is that a specific reference can only be understood with reference to the speaker’s intention, whereas a definite reference is understood by way of the listener’s understanding. In Lojban, le prenu is a specific reference to a person, and can be translated either “the person” (which is specific and definite) or “a person” (which in first reference is specific but not definite; on second reference it has become definite), or ‘a certain person’ (which is specific but not definite; I know who I mean but you are presumed not to). A fuller gloss is “the person I have in mind”. Whereas lo prenu is non-specific (more exactly, it may be either specific or non-specific) and as such is necessarily indefinite, since if I don’t know exactly who I mean, but am just making a mental statement, you can’t possibly know who I mean either.

    someone whose native language is Standard English

    Indeed, although more accurately someone whose native language is Standard English with a local accent. Any anglophone ought to be able to understand my morphology and syntax, though not necessarily every time in real time: I understand very well how Emily Dickinson felt when everyone said “What??” to her most ordinary remarks (as far as she could tell), and why she eventually found it necessarily to communicate chiefly by notes. (I suspect, though I don’t know, that the poems were found among piles of these notes.)

    I do however tend to mimic other people’s accents without being able to help it. I used to be petrified that people would take my mimicry as mockery, using their own accents (badly pronounced) while speaking “better” than they did. I was relieved of this chronic fear in my mid-20s, though, when a very nice young lady from India told me that I had “a nice light American accent, very easy to understand”. It was my adoption of the superficial features of her own non-native accent that made me easy to understand, of course, and I immediately geeksplained what was happening. (Mansplaining and geeksplaining both consist of answering questions that were not asked, but they differ in motive: mansplains are basically bullshit intended to impress or intimidate, whereas geeksplains are the answers the geek would want to have if the roles were reversed.)

    My wife too tends to be a mimic, and like many people living in a different accent region from where they grew up, switches gears between something close to the home accent when speaking to her sister and the highly watered-down version she uses daily. When she actually goes to see her sister (who still lives in the home region), to my ear the home accent returns in full force, whereas they tell her she is still talking like a Yankee!

  40. John C.,

    I’m not sure if this is apropos: In Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim there’s a scene where Jim Dixon is left a message that someone called him. He’s told that it was a man. The number is unfamiliar to him. He calls back, and a woman answers the phone:

    ‘ “Have you got a man there?” he asked, feeling a little baffled.
    ‘ “A man? Who is that speaking?” The voice was hostile.
    ‘ “My name’s Dixon.”
    ‘ “Oh yes, Mr Dixon. Of course. One moment please.” ‘

    As I see it, the question “have you got a man there?” seems odd because a man would normally refer to a man not specified in either the speaker’s or the listener’s mind, i.e. a generic man, whereas here the speaker is aiming for someone who is specific in the listener’s mind.

  41. I think that’s plausible, though if I were the woman I’d be hostile too: asking for “a man” is as much as to say “I want to speak to a man, any man, just not a woman”. Which is sexist and insulting.

    I think the Dixon-Watson (Dick’s son, Walter’s son) coincidence may have been in James Watson’s mind when he wrote The Double Helix, whose original title was “Honest Jim”.

  42. Have you got a man there?

    I read the book years ago and don’t remember too many details, but I think this blunt question is one of the many gaffes that Jim has been committing. If the woman is living alone and this is the first thing she hears a stranger say, she will probably take it as an insulting invasion of privacy, someone (landlord, social services administrator or such) checking if she has a lover. Obviously she does not know Jim well enough to recognize his voice. No wonder she sounds hostile.

    Sexism was not a concern at the time the book was written.

  43. In that passage, Jim is speaking with a rich man’s personal secretary. His awkward phrasing would sound just as odd if he’d said “is there a woman there?” The hostility, as I read it, is not toward an inferred sexism, but toward his inferred weirdness.

  44. Thanks for the clarification. I think “Have you got a man” (rather than “Is there a man”) sounds strange in this context too.

  45. Sexism was not a concern at the time the book was written.

    It was certainly a concern of many women in 1950 (not least my mother), and though it may not have been a concern of Amis as a man, it was certainly his concern as a novelist.

  46. though it may not have been a concern of Amis as a man, it was certainly his concern as a novelist.

    Sexism was a concern of Amis as a novelist? Kingsley Amis? I’m gonna want to see some documentation of that. It’s a funny book, but one of the more sexist I can recall (my wife was disgusted by it), and I would doubt the word “sexism” ever passed his lips other than as a sneer.

  47. Sexism has been a concern of women since forever, but at the time the book was written, it was not an explicit concern in mainstream public discourse.
    I still don’t think sexism has anything to do with the woman’s behavior in that particular scene. As descriptions of women go in the book overall, they are man’s-view stereotypes, though I’ve seen worse.

  48. Well, yeah, we’ve all seen worse, but that book is held up as a peak of comic writing, so I tend to be a little more severe about it.

  49. I didn’t know he was a comic novelist specifically, and it’s quite common for novelists to enter into the inner lives even of “inferior beings”.

  50. I read the book years ago when I read English fluently but was not aware of many subtleties. I had heard that the book was hilarious, and kept waiting for the funny parts, but they never came! So I found the book rather boring. Some time later I mentioned my reaction to a British colleague, who told me that to understand the book one had to be familiar with the social context: Jim does not fit in with the academic milieu where he is now teaching because of his working class background, while his colleagues are more “effete”. I remembered only one female character, an unattractive girl (at least according to him).

    Some years later I saw a movie adaptation of the novel, probably on TV. I think I missed the beginning. “Jim” was not at all like what I had been led to expect from my reading, and the best acted, most memorable character was the girl in question.

    As for the word “sexism”, I don’t think it was in much use at the time.

  51. cardinal gaius sextus von bladet says

    I had heard that the book was hilarious, and kept waiting for the funny parts, but they never came! So I found the book rather boring.

    This has also happened to native speakers of English. (They made us read it at school, which was not especially wise of them. Not very much literature worth reading is of much use to school children at the best of times, and neither is Lucky Jim.)

  52. I can’t imagine giving Lucky Jim to schoolkids; you might as well give them Aristophanes.

  53. J. W. Brewer says

    I was exposed to Aristophanes in high school via an off-off-broadway production of, I think, The Clouds (v. def. not Lysistrata!) being on the itinerary for a Latin Club trip to NYC, and this being selected by the teacher not by the students. (I’m not sure if this was the same year I and some others went on an unauthorized side trip to Trash and Vaudeville on St. Mark’s Place during the Latin Club trip . . .) I guess it’s possible that the particular production had been bowdlerized a bit precisely so it could be pitched as edifying to high school groups, although it was not my impression at the time that we were their primary target audience.

  54. In the old days, my wife was a casual friend of Trash’s, and knew Vaudeville slightly through him. (If the stores were named after them, and not they after the stores, nobody is admitting it for public print.) Much later, she saw a woman at a Broadway show wearing a pair of pants that she herself had once owned, recognizable by the unique pattern of patches she had sewn on them. She gave them away because they no longer fit, and the woman (who must have been nonplussed by the whole thing — how’d you like to meet the woman old enough to be your mother that your fashion item once belonged to?) told her she had bought the pants at T & V. The subject of the price was suppressed by tacit mutual agreement. I remembered the pants very well, and Gale and I laughed about the whole thing afterwards.

  55. Lucky Jim for kids

    I don’t remember when I read it, but I must have been in my twenties.

  56. I also read Lucky Jim as a child. If I recall correctly, it was in an ESL edition my mother had (for the classes she taught). I was completely unamused, though my mother told me it was supposed to be funny. I also read part of House for Mr. Biswas without cracking a smile, though she told me that was supposed to be funny too.

    After reading that the ugly girl is based on Larkin’s Monica, I have thought of rereading it.

    Not very much literature worth reading is of much use to school children at the best of times,

    Pass the smelling salts, this is a rather shocking statement.

  57. @SFReader

    At the intersection between Scottish and Australian English we find the following recent anecdote from the Australian Senate:

    Ian Macdonald under fire for telling Doug Cameron to learn to speak Australian

    For a bit of cultural background, try this little “comedy” piece from SBS: “Learn to Speak Australian”: When did racist bus rants become okay to do in the Senate?

  58. Not very much literature worth reading is of much use to school children at the best of times

    Fifty counterexamples from Goodreads. Granted, probably nobody’s taste is broad enough to encompass them all. There is also the long list in Le Guin’s essay “Cheek by Jowl” about animal stories (broadly considered).

  59. I have a critical edition of Aristophanes somewhere, in which the annotator points out several times how painfully unfunny the gags can be. He seemed to be particularly hard on The Clouds for its poor parody of Socrates. I think a lot of the humor in these works depends on effective staging. The best version of any Greek comedy that I have ever seen was a film version of Lysistrata that I saw in the middle of the night on Showtime; it was done as softcore porn and managed to be both erotic and intentionally funny.

  60. Brett: Effective staging, and also timing, motions, attitudes, facial expressions, and other tricks of the theatrical professions, as well as knowledge of personalities currently in the public mind.

  61. Gale confirms that Trash & Vaudeville, the store on St. Mark’s Place, was indeed named after Trash and Vaudeville, the people. See also the ice-cream koan.

  62. I reread Lucky Jim recently, and became aware of a peeve that I’ve harbored for a long time: when authors use their characters to give voice to their own opinionated speeches. It really mars the fun in numerous places in the book. If you want to be a pundit, write an opinion piece for the paper.

    And that goes for Nabokov, too, who had to have a central character carp about psychoanalysis in every novel.

    (That said, the public lecture scene in Lucky Jim is perfect comedy.)

  63. David Eddyshaw says

    authors use their characters to give voice to their own opinionated speeches

    Also, the Pope is a Catholic.

    I agree that the public lecture scene in Lucky Jim is right up there with Gussie Fink-Nottle’s speech at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School prize-giving.

  64. Well, the pope is more uniformly Catholic. There do exist authors who don’t do this.

  65. Also, the Pope is a Catholic.

    Apparently not: the official titles of the Bishop of Rome do not include “Pope” — that is merely “commonly used in the titles of documents”.

    The one with the official title “Pope” is the Coptic “Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of all Africa on the Holy See of St. Mark the Apostle”.

  66. David Eddyshaw says

    The old certainties dissolve … what about bears, then? Surely one can rely on them.

  67. AntC – is this one of those moments like when you can say “there is no such thing as a prime minister of the UK, because officially he is the first lord of the treasury”?

  68. @JC: Thanks for the bear story!

  69. Stu Clayton says

    Definitely bears reading, although they didn’t in that episode.


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